A Whiff of the Middle Ages


The beefy smell of pumpkin soup and wood smoke nudged its way into the night air. It was just before Vespers, or evening prayers, and the village began to lock up, settling down, lights going out one by one like fireflies on a summer night. Only the kitchen lights shone out over the cobblestone street, as mothers and wives, widows and widowers, fathers and husbands, ladled their evening broth over thick crusts of stale bread and grated Gruyère cheese on top.

Vezelay France church walls
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

A peasant meal, eaten in one form or another for centuries. And now pumpkin,  at least since Christopher Columbus clambered onto the Santa Maria and brought back pumpkins and other squashes from the New World.

An occasional headlight cast an incongruous shadow through the narrow outer door onto the stone walls reaching nearly 50 feet above my head. I sat on a long narrow bench, in relative darkness, alone. Stamping my feet on the stone floor, I glanced around me again, marveling that not another soul breathed with me in the great narthex of the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene. Built in the 12th century in Romanesque style, gray, square, and foreboding, it sits high on a hill overlooking tranquil Burgundian wine country and the village of Vezelay, France.

Eager to be rid of the numbing coldness running up my legs, I jiggled my feet again and stood up quickly. In the shadows, tiny holes — like pockmarks cratering the faces of long-dead pilgrims suffering from smallpox — indented the surface of each square of stone in the floor. Light from the sunset suddenly blazed through the stained-glass windows, cascading over the faceless statues carved into the enormous tympanum above the arched double doors, leading into the pilgrimage sanctuary. Irate villagers smashed the features off most of the faces during the French Revolution of 1789. Or they completely removed their heads, a telling act at a time when the guillotine ruled.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

His nose gone, Christ stands in the center of the multitude of figures, his robes swirling like the trajectory of stars in Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” paintings.

The odor of pumpkin soup, laced with the medieval hint of nutmeg, lured me out into the street. I followed the scent to a small café across from the church.

The waiter sensed my hunger and settled me into a chair near the window overlooking church of the faceless saints.

Soon a bowl of orange-colored soup steamed beneath my nose.

I ate, but the pamphlets in my backpack played with my mind. St Bernard of Clairvaux called for the Second Crusade, right there in Vezelay, on a hillside just beyond the city walls.  An act that reverberates throughout our world yet to this day.

History, in the mouth and everywhere …

(For more on the history of pumpkins, see my post, “A Meditation on Pumpkin Pie.”

Here’s a visual rendition of Soupe au Potiron (you might want to turn the music off or at least lower the volume!):

and a recipe, too …

La Soupe au Potiron (Pumpkin Soup in a Pumpkin)

1 7-lb rouge vif d’Etampes, or Cinderella pumpkin
7 T. butter
1 large yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 ½ cups fresh white bread crumbs, toasted
½ t. ground nutmeg
½ t. ground sage
½ cup grated Swiss cheese
4 cup vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
½ cup heavy cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F.  Cut a 4″ lid out of the pumpkin.  Remove and discard
seeds and string.  Rub inside of pumpkin with 1 Tbsp. salted butter, season
with salt, and place on a baking pan.

Melt remaining butter in a skillet over low heat.  Add onions and cook until
soft, about 10 minutes.  Stir in bread crumbs and cook for 2 minutes.  Add
nutmeg and sage, and season generously with salt and pepper.  Remove from
heat, stir in cheese, and spoon mixture into pumpkin.  Add enough stock to
fill pumpkin to within 1/2″ of the rim.  Put bay leaves on top, and then
replace pumpkin lid.

Bake until pumpkin begins to soften and brown on the outside and the stock
bubbles inside, about 1 1/2 hours.  Remove from oven and transfer to a serving
platter.  Scrape flesh from bottom and sides of pumpkin with a spoon.
Just before serving, stir in heavy cream if desired.

(From Saveur magazine, November 1998, page 136)

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


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